L03 Deontology vs Utilitarianism, The eternal battle…

Deontological ethics is an ethics system that judges whether an action is right or wrong based on a moral code. Consequences of those actions are not taken into consideration. This ethics system is intended to be precise and by the book. Doing the right thing means to follow proper rules of behavior and, by doing so, promoting fairness and equality.

Immanuel Kant, the ethics system’s celebrated proponent, formulated the most influential form of a secular deontological moral theory in 1788. Unlike religious deontological theories, the rules (or maxims) in Kant’s deontological theory derive from human reason. (Shakil, 2015)

Deontology works great in theory, but in the real world, it is challenging to comply with it. What happens when you have to choose between two evils? What happens when we can’t be objective? What happens when the situation is not black and white?

In the other hand, utilitarian ethics state that a course of action should be taken by considering the most positive outcome. This ethics system is more accurate when it comes to addressing complicated situations, which solutions are not as trivial.

Originally, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, defined utility as the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action. (Wikipedia, 2015). However, the downfall of this ethics system is not being justice-oriented.

To better understand deontology vs utilitarianism, let’s use an example that features a moral dilemma.

Peter is a father and his son is very sick. Peter took his son to the doctor and found out that his son needs a very expensive surgery. Peter doesn’t have enough time to earn the money needed for the surgery because his son is in a critical condition. Peter, not knowing what to do to save his son, decides to lie. Peter goes to a bank and asks for a personal loan intended to be for investing in a new business that would generate a lot of revenue. Peter gets the money, goes to the hospital, pays for the surgery and saves his son’s life.

According to Kant, Peter shouldn’t have lied. According to Bentham, Peter did the right thing because, at the end, he saved a life. According to you, what have you done if lying would have been your only choice to save a life?

As we can see with this example, ethical dilemmas are not easy to solve. Ethics depend on a moral framework. We make decisions based on what we believe is right and what is best for us, but not necessarily for everyone else. In some situations, we decide with our hearts, in other situations with our brains. Being human is part of the dilemma.



  1. Susan K Wells February 7, 2016 at 8:29 PM #

    Hello Nirmin and Carla,

    I totally agree with reasoning the saving the child’s live would take preference over why the loan was needed. When addressing this situation from an utilitarian approach to ethics, it is clear that this course of action would lead to a positive outcome. Kant’s deontological theory (Shakil, 2015), to me is how the application of human reasoning is challenged. Kant would suggest Peter lied because the theory states, we are morally obligated to act in accordance with a certain set of principles and rules regardless of outcome. In the final Peter acted in the best moral interest of his son but who is to say that is was not in accordance with set ethical values and not mere duty principle. His intent is to pay back the loan as a duty, even if it was offered on a pretense of a business loan. Either way, a means to an end proved positive.
    Enjoyed your posts,
    •Shakil, (2015) “Kantian Duty Based (Deontological) Ethics”, retrieved on Feb 5th, 2016 from http://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/morality-101/kantian-duty-based-deontological-ethics

  2. Nirmin El-haj February 6, 2016 at 11:38 PM #

    In thinking about the ethical dilemma that you present in your blog, I think that I would most likely approach the situation with a utilitarian perspective. As you said, “we make decisions based on what we believe is right and what is best for us, but not necessarily for everyone else. In some situations we decide with our hearts, in other situations with our brains” ( Guzman, 2016). As a parent I have an obligation to protect my child, and I would say that there is no ethical framework that would disagree with this. I understand that the means that one would take to protect their child should not be unethical, such as the means chosen in this case (lying). Nonetheless, in this scenario the means of lying to get the loan, would justify the ends. After all, a life (my daughter in this case) would be saved, I will benefit because I will not only fulfill my duty as a parent, but I would also keep a person that is dear to me alive. Most importantly, the bank will also benefit assuming that I will pay the bank loan back without any delays—the bank will receive their money back with the additional accrued interest. Therefore, the benefits are maximized and the pain is minimized for all in this case.

    Guzman, C.G. (2016, February, 05). Deontology Vs Utilitarianism, The Eternal Battle… [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://sites.psu.edu/psy533buban/2016/02/05/l03-deontology-vs-utilitarianism-the-eternal-battle/

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